University of Oregon
- School of Journalism and Communication - College of Education
LITERACY EDUCATION NETWORK
Listening to radio
plays: fictional soundscapes
Author: Alan Beck, Drama
Dept., University of Kent
Kent, United Kingdom
Web Site: Radio
Hub: Radio sites maintained by Alan Beck
In 'Letters from a fond
Uncle' in the BBC's weekly listings publication, the 'Radio Times' of
3 February 1928, the following advice was given: The art of listening
is to make a selection from the many and varied items of the day. Mark
those to which you would listen and attend to them in much the same
way as if you were at a public performance. If you are able to dim the
lights and prepare your mental attitude for what is coming, you get
the full measure of realism every time. 1
Here is an extreme example
of selective listening in a personally created 'zone' and the sort of
devotion that was required in the first decade of radio drama technology.
In this article, I investigate what happens when listeners to radio
drama are positioned at the centre of ideal soundscapes. The redundancy
and noise we experience as hearers in real-life interaction are eliminated,
sound is split from image, and fictional sound events are skillfully
layered in a hierarchy where dialogue predominates. Radio drama remodels
the soundscape in to an 'atmos' (short for atmosphere) background, and
uses it often to signal the opening of a scene, or 'sign posting' as
it is termed. Because the 'essential feature of sound is not its location,
but that it fills space' 2,
I will consider also how sound spaces are created in radio plays, in
the blind medium.
In my discussion, I move
back and forth between our everyday hearing experiences and the fictional
atmos, effects or F/Xs, and dialogue of the radio scene. In our real-life
interactions, we play an active role in selectively hearing and focusing,
part of which is called the 'cocktail-party effect' 3.
The radio drama director
fills the role of ideal 'ears', selecting, focusing and designing, though
the audience actively play their part in the construction of the 'second
play' in their heads. Moving backwards from this fictional world may
well give us further insights into our hearing roles in real life. Radio
drama offers many pleasures and rewards, and it enables us to develop
richer sensitivities of listening. Perhaps the desires it awakens in
us flow originally from the 'uterine darkness' 4
in which we heard our mother's voice, with what is claimed to be the
first of our senses to develop.
As well as its part in world
culture, and over fifty nations participate in the international Prix
Futura and Prix Italia competitions, BBC radio drama still resists that
'commodification of the soundscape .. in commercial radio' condemned
by Wreford Miller 5
due to the principle of public service broadcasting.
Back in the late 1920s,
when the 'fond Uncle' wrote his advice, only a fifth of the radio audience
in the UK had a valve radio, so most struggled with the crystal set
and headphones. It is no wonder that BBC producers wished to give their
programmes the status of live concert performances and to remove as
many disattention factors as possible. Through the crackle, in the previous
fortnight, there was the opportunity to hear a lot of radio drama, from
classics originally from the stage such as Maeterlinck's 'The Blue Bird'
(1908) and J.M. Synges 'The Playboy of the Western World' (1907), to
'Courtship - Ancient and Modern, a comedy in two scenes by Fanny Morris
Listening to radio drama
is not hearing. I follow Gary Ferrington's distinction, 'listening requires
a quantity of mental effort' 6
. The radio drama audience is required to make an active commitment,
an 'aural contract' with the play, interpreting the narrative and dialogue
in accordance with the codes and conventions of a long BBC tradition.
In return, the listener gains pleasure and a focus of desire on the
narrative and characters, and often an identification with the protagonist.
There are differing environments of listening, whether in a car, on
the kitchen radio or comfortably seated with full attention, as the
'fond Uncle' recommended long before the invention of FM stereo. Each
listener creates their own 'listening zone', which includes externally
these environmental factors and extends internally into their imagination,
the listening-brain mechanism that recreates an individual's 'second
Ferrington has compared
this to the screening of a 'movie' in the mind:
Each individual becomes
his or her own movie director with no two people having the same
imaginary experience. 7
In contrast to what is written
of film audiences, we could argue that radio listeners are not put into
a passive and artificially regressive state, sitting in darkness, with
the camera as proxy for the eyes. There are similarities with the aesthetics
of music-listening, but radio drama is primarily dialogue, it is verbocentric.
A strict hierarchy of sound is constructed, whereby music and sound
effects (S/FXs) are balanced in importance well below the characters'
dialogue and rarely share the same sound space for long. It is the dialogue
that absolutely dominates the sonic flow.
BBC Radio Drama
I need to give some current
information about radio drama in the UK, which is almost totally the
monopoly of the BBC, the 'National Theatre of the Air'. The combined
output of the BBC Radio Drama Department and Light Entertainment's comes
to some twenty-two hours of radio drama a week. Add to this total the
longest-running soap in the world, 'The Archers', 'an everyday story
of country folk', which began on 1 January 1951 and is still going strong
with daily 15-minute episodes Monday to Friday, and an hour's repeat
on Sunday. This makes radio drama one of Britain's main artistic enterprises,
though one of the most undervalued, employing about 14,000 actors a
year and with a budget of perhaps 40 million UK pounds. (Financial details
are not released.)
The cost of an hour's radio
drama on Radio 4 averages at 11,000 to 14,000 UK pounds; and Radio 2's
more popular entertainment comes out at between 11,000 and 27,000 UK
pounds. Regular audiences for afternoon plays range from 200,000 to
over a million. So it can be seen that drama is radio's most expensive
product by far, outclassed only by the occasional live-relay opera on
Radio 3. In the BBC, it is a remarkable tradition that needs protecting,
although too often it feels itself to be a 'Cinderella', ignored by
critics and theorists. We are soon to celebrate its seventy-fifth birthday
in 1998. 8
Soundscape and radio
The constructed atmos (atmosphere)
of the radio play scene bears only some relation to real-life soundscapes.
has described three aspects of the soundscape as we live in it: 'foreground
sound .. which gets one's prompt attention', then 'contextual sounds
taking place in the vicinity of the foreground sound', and finally,
'background field' which is the 'ambient soundscape'. He gives the example
of a fire, with the fire siren, and secondly the shouting and chaos
as the 'contextual sound', and thirdly, traffic and other urban noises
as the final category in the background. This soundscape from real-life
interaction mixes human voices and other sound events, some of whose
sound sources are seen and some, the acousmatic, are not.
Before applying Ferrington's
threefold model, I have to split off the dialogue component of radio
drama and consider that separately. I want to concentrate here on the
'atmos' as it is termed in radio play production, the constructed and
fictional soundscape of the radio play scene. It operates only under
certain cultural, aesthetic and production conventions. These demand
that each sound event must signify to its full weight within the overall
sound picture. And secondly, that there is no redundancy, as each sound
event is balanced within the overall picture and perspective. This lack
of redundancy is one of the obvious conventions of realism in radio
drama which operates by a much greater economy in sound events than,
for example, the film sound track. Often the atmos is relegated only
to the 'background field' behind the dialogue and establishes the location
of the scene - examples being traffic, bar jukebox, sea shore and bird
Further, as opposed to Ferrington's
real-life fire with its chaos and shouting, and indeed its intense overloading
of experience for those involved, or over signification, radio drama
gives a constructed emotional experience to its listeners. The analogous
fire in a radio play could well be broken up into a series of rapid
short scenes, building to a narrative climax, and always grasped by
the listener through a strict hierarchy and succession of sound events.
A final rule is that each sound event can be identified with its source,
even an 'unseen' or acousmatic source, as opposed to our limited hearing
abilities in real-life interaction which are so much less direct than
Let me take up now Ferrington's
first aspect of the live soundscape, the 'foreground sound ... which
gets one's prompt attention'. His example is the fire siren's screaming
forward into the listener's consciousness with special significance'.
One typical use of this foreground sound in radio drama is in 'signposting',
the technique for establishing location at the beginning of many scenes.
F/Xs are most often created either from the CD radio drama library (car
arriving on gravel, traffic, street atmos, champagne cork popping) or
by Spot technicians in the studio (knock on door, tea cups, tapping
on computer keyboard). All sound events in the radio scene require an
acoustic (their environment) and often a verbal context, so this location
signposting will often be accompanied by some descriptive dialogue to
let the listener know where the characters are.
Here are some examples from
1. F/X MAN DIGGING IN
OPEN FIELD WITH EXERTION.
2. WIFE (arriving) Still
digging the carrots, Tony?
1. F/X FAMILY EATING
WITH CUTLERY ON PLATES. EMBARRASSMENT.
2. FATHER (clearing
throat) This is a marvelous piece of beef, darling.
1. F/X JANE TYPING DESPERATELY
2. HUSBAND (entering)
How's the book going, or dare I ask?
Signposting has the same
function as the establishing shot in film but has to operate much more
rapidly. Of course foreground sound events also occur in the middle
of a scene, depending on the story line, such as machinery, running,
gunshots in a murder mystery and thunder in a ghost story. It has to
be admitted that although radio drama directors often say 'you can do
anything on radio', the fact is that some foreground sounds do not come
over convincingly, such as a gun going off near to the sound centre,
that is, the centre of the sound picture for the listener. Gunshot as
an F/X has too much of an attack and the broadcast result must often
come over as a 'pop', especially as treated for medium wave or AM reception
by the BBC Optomod system.
A further note is needed
on signposting. The location and acoustic of a scene is created even
more by the character's voices as by technicians. It is not enough to
put an actor into the studio 'set', as it is called, with screens and
other effects. The characters have to inhabit the scene, the open field,
the dining room and the study in these examples, by their playing -
an example of the many special techniques of radio acting 10
. They also contribute by grunting, clearing their throats, and in breaths
and out breaths, and other voicings which establish their presence and
sometimes their 'entrances'. The term for these, to distinguish them
from words ('voco-' rather than 'verbo') is paralinguistic utterances.
Radio drama's middle
Ferrington's second category
is 'contextual sounds taking place in the vicinity of the foreground
sound'. These inhabit the middle ground between the foreground sounds
and the ambient 'background field'. In his example of the fire siren,
these contextual sounds are the shouting and chaos. Radio drama's middle
ground is a fascinating area because often it does not exist, mainly
due to the primacy of the dialogue. Characters and atmos are arranged
as figure and ground in the sound picture and actors are clustered at
the centre of the sound picture. This suits the many scene locations
which are domestic and indoors, or in a car, and often many outdoor
as well, as characters talk to each other rather than shout across a
In production terms, radio
drama directors create two types of sound pictures for scenes: either
what I term the 'up-front' style at the microphone and positioning (or
'blocking') the actors within a narrow field, or secondly, allowing
the actors to roam more widely in a more 'opened-out' set. The listener
gets more of an 'opened-out' impression of the location if the sound
'frame' is about fifteen feet and more. Otherwise, you hear a character
arriving through the door and then suddenly he or she is there at the
sound centre, having bounded across the room. But space does not operate
in radio drama as it does on-stage or the screen, where the physicalities
of the time-space continuum rule visibly. Economy of movement, and even
cheating the action, usually suit the radio script.
There are examples where
Ferrington's contextual sounds, or their fictional equivalent, usefully
enter the middle ground. Here I am still restricting myself to F/Xs
and atmos, and to what they bring into dialogue. There are creative
touches which can add to the feeling and tension of a scene, and especially
in radio genre plays where F/Xs can be used more plentifully, as opposed
to realist plays with stretches of 'talking-heads' dialogue. So in a
SCI-fi montage, giving the listener an aural 'sweep' over a dystopic
urban landscape, and after establishing the rumbling of futuristic traffic
in the distance, we hear the barking of guard dogs somewhat nearer.
Or in a tense domestic scene, again with background traffic, a police
siren wails just before the vital revelation or into a tense pause.
Even a phone ringing in a next-door office can give an edginess, or
as a final example, crackle and static on a phone line, just as the
lover's conversation enters an emotional difficulty. These are little
peaks or intrusions from the background which serve to push the play
tension up a notch and that a director can use to punctuate the rhythm
of a scene. Their function is affective more than anything else, and
they operate, in terms of signification, both as an iconic element representing
an event, and as symbolic. In the selection of F/Xs for a radio play,
there is regularly this over determination, so that the dog's barking
or the phone ringing operates on more than one level at the same time.
Atmos is often the main
business of F/X-ing in the radio drama production cubicle. The effects
catalogue from BBC Enterprises Ltd. gives a wide range: main line railway
station, art gallery, shopping centre, animals, jungle habitats and
crowds, among many. There is a careful functional balance in each of
these, combining a continuous mix at a background level yet without
blurring the listener's sensibility. It is too easy to lose the listener's
awareness of this lower sonic layer after its initial introduction and
so it must be 'tweaked up' every so often by the Studio Manager through
the dialogue. Atmos comes in at a higher level for signposting purposes
at the top of a scene, and then is brought under, and kept under.
Wreford Miller, in his masterful
Silence In The Contemporary Landscape, uses the visual metaphor
of 'flatline' to define today's oppressive and repetitive machine sounds:
the effect of little variance in energy output results in a sound with
a consistent intensity level. These sounds contain too much redundancy,
too little difference to contain relevant information to the human organism,
with the result that they are communicatively disruptive, and our hearing
systems adapt to them. 11
Radio drama atmos must avoid
becoming a 'flatline sound' and so must contain enough 'discrete sound
events, rhythm' (Miller) and irregularity to function. Hence items in
the BBC catalogue offer that vital mixture of ingredients. It is over
to production to give a skillful balancing in production and to allow
the atomos to intrude in little peaks into that middle ground I described
above. But in teaching radio drama, I encourage my students to listen
and invent freshly and innovatively, and not to rely solely on CDs.
So they venture forth with their recording equipment, and they observe
and mix their own soundscapes. It is too easy and lazy to script and
produce 'industrial' radio drama scenes, as I call them, designed and
executed only from catalogue numbers of pre-recorded effects. Atmos
in a play can never become 'background field' (Ferrington).
There is an amusing BBC
example of the overuse of a particular CD effect only last year. A woman
farmer from Wales in the UK and a devoted radio listener, spotted a
particularly distinctive cow F/X too often in the BBC farming soap,
'The Archers'. She complained that the same cow was heard mooing from
four separate farms. The soap production team confessed their overuse
of a track from the BBC bovine effects CD, 'we have decided to send
it to market'.
Hierarchy of sound layers
The fundamental principle
of radio drama production is a strict hierarchy of sound layers. The
dialogue is primary, even more starkly arranged in a figure-and-ground
relationship against F/Xs, atmos and music than that which Ferrington
of real-life interaction:
A sound may become a figure
given its intensity, volume, pitch, rhythm, or especially the attention
of the listener. Ferrington continues:Sound figures can be natural in
occurrence or selected by the will of the listener.
For the radio play audience,
that selection has already been made by the director and playwright.
I have sketched above the different ratio between figure and ground,
where the middle is often missing. This does not deprive one of active
listening and it is that quantity and quality of mental effort which
the audience values.
Harmony and counterpoint
The pictorial analogy of
figure and ground may be too static for the ongoing mix of sound events.
Another analogous relationship has been suggested by Michel Chion in
the context of film - harmony and counterpoint as dual systems in music
- for the visual and sound tracks and their interconnections 13.
Chion defines harmony, for the purpose of his cinematic model, as involving
'the relations of each note to the other notes heard at the same moment,
together forming chords' and sees it as a vertical relationship; while
counterpoint constitutes 'two parallel and loosely connected tracks,
neither dependent on each other' 14.
The contrapuntal model is the horizontal, where instruments and voices
pursue relatively independent courses. One thinks of Bach's counterpoint,
in chorales and sonatas.
These are two divergent
tendencies in cinema aesthetics, especially prominent in the transition
from silent film to the talkies and in formalist controversies of the
1920s and 1930s. For my purposes, it is fascinating to make note of
this dualism, and to transfer it over to radio drama dialogue and its
balancing atmos, even though we are dealing with one signifying system,
These two types of construction
offer different choice relations in designing and balancing the radio
scene. Both are tied of course to the ongoing chain of serial progression,
to the overall sequence or parataxis, because radio drama is an art
form in time.
Counterpoint, with its predominantly
horizontal and parallel relationship, is the least observable in radio
drama practice and for good reasons. Rarely, for example, are dialogue
and a music track mixed together with equal signification and at equal
levels, as in film. The broadcast result would confuse and deter listeners
A radio scene, which is
not just of the 'taking-heads' variety and in a neutral acoustic, could
mix the following four layers: dialogue between characters, the atmos
background, Spot effects in the studio, and perhaps music at the top
and tail of the scene. The relationship of these is rather the vertical,
harmonic relationship, the first of the two models I cited from Chion.
Each layer, with each of the sound events in itself, enters into a simultaneous,
vertical relationship with the others. Like harmonic principles in music,
the vertical matching, overlapping, balancing, and contrasts, form an
ongoing dynamic. Fortunately it is in the nature of sound that these
different layers can be edited together without the joins being noticed,
whereas every visual cut in film immediately strikes us.
Space in the radio drama
Listening to radio plays
before the mid-1970s, when stereo production properly became the norm
in the BBC, it is noticeable how 'flat' many scenes are, most often
being produced in a neutral acoustic. There is relatively little use
of atmos to convey place, the radio equivalent of theatre's 'mise en
scene' or scenic picturisation. There are good broadcasting reasons
for this. Maybe that is why in some of the great classics of the 1950s,
of Samuel Beckett and Dylan Thomas, the characters and indeed the listeners
can be moved around so urgently. Stereo offers only a limited experience
of three-dimensional space, but it is a convention we accept, just as
depth in cinema and television is also illusory, as the image is actually
flat. The greatest division in radio scenes is between domestic spaces
where there is little or no opportunity for sound to fill the limited
space, and where movement on carpets and soft furnishings does not 'read'
for the listener, and larger resonantal spaces, such as fantasy castles,
factories and open landscapes.
Radio drama suffers in this
respect from the dominance of 'hearth plays' and realism in our culture.
Directors often worry about the 'ping-pong' nature of dialogue, back-and-forth
between characters, with little opportunity for movement. It is no surprise
that radio drama isregarded both as the actors' medium and the playwrights'
medium, and thatdirectors are undervalued.
Time in radio drama
Because radio dialogue rules
above all, there is the imposition of a linear and 'real' time through
the serial unfolding of the plot events. Character's talk imposes everyday
time as the overall rhythm, a fictional 'talk-time', even in radio play
modes which are non-realist. Of course abrupt transitions are often
scripted, from scene to scene, but radio drama is mostly locked into
the time-space continuum of real life. The rare exceptions are radio
montage and short intercut segments of dialogue, usually in time-reversal
dream within a character's mind. Film can leap in both time and location,
as indeed radio can do too, but radio dialogue must exist within what
I call a narrative 'talk-time', a linear continuity.
Finally, the whole radio
drama apparatus encourages an impression of reality. I use this term,
radio apparatus, for the whole network of production and editing, in
and out of the studio, from microphones to broadcasting, and to the
listeners. Because radio drama is so dialogue-based, the apparatus itself
givens an impression-of-reality effect - the experience, after all,
of the continuous real-life soundscapes at the centre of which we are
continuously placed, as social actors in the script of our everyday
Letters from a fond Uncle, no 11: Do we listen reasonably? by Sidney
Moseley', Radio Times 3 February 1928.
Ferrington 1994 in the section 'Aural Information'.
Ferrington 1993 in the section 'The elements of audio design', 'An individual,
attending a typical office party, can easily isolate relevant conversations
from the constant din of background sound'. See also Crisell 1986p.48.
Chion 1994, Foreword by Walter Murch, p.vii. See also Miller 1995 3c.
Desire, compulsiveness, and the erotic ear, 'The ear is undoubtedly
an erotic orifice'.
Miller 1995 3b. New acoustic communities.
Ferrington 1994 under the section 'Listening'.
Ferrington 1993 in the section 'Theater of the mind'. See also Frances
Gray in Lewis 1981 p.49.
The first radio drama broadcast was on 16 February 1923, from the British
Broadcasting Company's Marconi House on the Strand in central London.
The programme was scenes from Shakespeare. The first radio play originally
written for radio, a radio 'origination' as it is called, was Richard
Hughes' 'Danger', set down a coal mine where the lights go out, and
was broadcast on 14 January, 1924. For a history, see Drakakis 1981,
chapter 1. The income in 1995 from commercial radio advertising in the
UK in 1995 amounted to 270.2 million UK pounds. I include radio ads
here because many of them can be analyzed as 'mini-dramas'.
Ferrington 1994 under the section 'The Soundscape'.
My book, Radio Acting, will be published in June 1997 by A & C Black,
Miller 1995 3b. Technology and development, new devices and sounds:
1: the industrial revolution
Ferrington 1994 in the section 'Exploring figure ground relations'.
Chion 1994 p.35 following.
Chion 1994 pp.35-6.
There is a long history of listeners' complaining about 'thumpy' effects
and music. An example is 'Radio Times' 4 November 1932 p.333 'Both sides
of the microphone': 'Simplicity should be one of the principal qualities
of the radio play. It is never easy for the listener to follow what
comes to him so unexpectedly from this loud-speaker'.
Michel Chion, Audio-Vision:
Sound on Screen edited and translated by Claudia Gorbman (Columbia University
Press 1994) from L'Audio-Vision (Editions Nathan, Paris 1990).
Andrew Crisell, Understanding
Radio (Methuen, 1986).
John Drakakis (ed.), British
Radio Drama (CUP, 1981).
Gary Ferrington, 'Audio
Design: Creating Multi-Sensory Images For The Mind' Journal of Visual
Literary (1993), and also published at http://interact.uoregon.edu/MediaLit/WFAEResearch/sndesign
in the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology (WFAE) Articles and Research
Gary Ferrington, 'Keep Your
Ear-Lids Open' Journal of Visual Literacy (1994) and at /A>
in the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology (WFAE) Articles and Research
Peter Lewis (ed.), Radio
Drama (Longman, 1981).
Wreford Miller, Thesis:
Silence in The Contemporary Soundscape, file date: May 21, 1995,
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